Do Off-Grid Refrigerators Benefit Users Long-Term?

I’m educating my seven grandchildren with the money from the refrigerator

By Michael Maina, Siena Hacker & Hannah Blair of CLASP, Co-Secretariat to the Efficiency for Access Coalition

The [off-grid] refrigerator has helped me put my life back to normal. Since being diagnosed with HIV, I have not always been able to afford my medication. Now, with the added income of my fridge I’m taking my medicine and no longer have the pressure of wondering what to feed my kids.

— Nabbosa Teddy, Masaka, Uganda

Off-Grid Refrigerator Field Testing

In the Central Region of Uganda, electricity can be a scarce commodity supplied only to major towns. In the small villages west of Lake Victoria, businesses rely on solar power for essential lighting and appliances. Productive use appliances, like refrigerators, play a crucial role in promoting economic activity and contributing to social development for entrepreneurs in the area.

Nabbosa Teddy is a small business owner in Kiwangala, Uganda who participated in the 2017 Global LEAP Awards Off-Grid Refrigerator Competition field testing. The Competition, launched in 2016, aimed to identify and promote the world’s best, most efficient off-grid refrigerators. After product testing in accredited laboratories, the Global LEAP Awards proceeded to Field testing. Here we partnered with Energy 4 Impact, through the Ideas to Impact Programme, and Village Energy to distribute and monitor the products in a selection of small retail shops, like Nabbosa’s, across rural Uganda.

Refrigeration provides a wide range of benefits, from improving human health and productivity, to enabling income-generation for small retailers and other value chain actors through the storage of cold drinks, food, and other perishable items for later sale. However, refrigerators are one of the most challenging off-grid appliances to design and develop to be both energy-efficient and cost-effective. A deeper understanding of the unique use cases and social impacts of refrigeration is essential to catalyse necessary advancements in product design and accelerate market growth.

Consumer Follow-Up

Two years after initial installation, the Village Energy team reached out to all 36 field test users to better understand product performance over time and the long-term impacts of the products on the entrepreneurs’’ lives and livelihoods. Efficiency for Access joined Village Energy in rural Masaka, Uganda, to meet with some of the consumers. The visit provided an opportunity to understand how the appliances have impacted their lives, understand their perceptions of the appliance performance and durability, as well as their aspirations for future appliance ownership.

Ssemanda Isma and his off-grid refrigerator in Kiwangala, Uganda.

I’m educating my seven grandchildren with the money from the refrigerator. My two sons died and left me their kids so I’m paying the school fees with my additional income, explained Ssemanda Isma, a small business owner from Kiwangala. Ssemanda is also charging his neighbors to pay for solar lighting.

Ssemanda’s story was not unique, Village Energy found over the two years of refrigerator use, users had experienced significant benefits. The majority of respondents (83%) reported that their business had evolved because of the appliance and almost half (44%) used additional funds from the refrigerator to pay for their children’s education. The surveys also showed that refrigerators improved consumers’ nutrition, 77% had modified their diet with fresh fruit, juice and dairy products.

Customer getting a hair cut in Tabula Ibrahim’s barbershop

The refrigerator has helped me do well… I’ve been able to open new ventures like a [TV] viewing hall and a hair salon in just one year. Tabula Ibrahim used his additional income from the refrigerator to purchase additional off-grid solar products to augment his business.

Through this visit, Efficiency for Access found that off-grid refrigeration had a significant positive impact on peoples’ lives, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Many consumers have little experience with business development and savings, many shared that they had no plan for purchasing another appliance when their refrigerator was no longer functional.

The Efficiency for Access and Village Energy teams in Masaka, Uganda

At Village Energy we have noted numerous benefits of solar refrigeration for small businesses and institutions, but community engagement is an important component of productive use appliance uptake. Through focus groups, we showcase our previous on-the-ground experiences, train the perspective customers on the economics related to efficient solar refrigerators and provide successful business ideas for profitably investing the additional and stable income generated, explained Guiseppe Gregu of Village Energy.

Off-grid appliance stakeholders should consider incorporating the delivery of both business and skills trainings for pilot participants and customers. Business training can help users make the most use of products through long-term saving and planning.

While the majority of products (78%) were still working, 69% of customers reported that the refrigerator was “not as effective as when first bought, but good.” The visit highlighted that servicing and maintenance are critical for long-term product success, however, very difficult to provide in remote areas.

Efficiency for Access is currently working to increase accessibility, affordability and performance of off-grid productive use appliances. The Coalition has partnered with 60 Decibels to carry out a longitudinal study on the long-term impacts of TVs, refrigerators and SWPs on customers participating in the Global LEAP Awards results-based financing program. This study will provide insights on appliance durability, customer interaction and satisfaction with the services provided by these appliances. We are also rolling out a series of field-testing projects focused on refrigerators, solar water pumps (SWPs) and solar powered milking machines in Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and India.

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